Jan 24 2014 11:00am

So, What Sort of Series Do You Like?

Jo Walton’s new book What Makes This Book So Great (U.S. / U.K.), is a collection of some of her best posts honoring, analyzing, and reassessing science fiction and fantasy. The full collection, featuring over 130 essays, is out on January 21st and includes great opinion pieces like this, originally published in April of 2009.

I love series because when I love something I want more of it. Sure I’ll buy an utterly new book by an author I like, but I also want to find out what happened to the characters I already know I care about. I never realised quite how much genre readers love series until I got published though. People are always asking me if I’m writing a sequel to Tooth and Claw (No!) and if I’ll write any more of the Small Change books. (No!) Some people really don’t want to let go. And of course I’m the same, when I heard Bujold was writing a new Miles book I bounced up and down for hours.

So, fine, everyone loves series. But what kind of series do you like?

The Lord of the Rings isn’t a series, it’s one long book published in three volumes for technical bookbinding reasons. Cherryh’s Union-Alliance books are a series, they’re all independent stories with their own plots and their own characters, but set in the same universe. Away from those extremes there are Bujold’s Vorkosigan books and Brust’s Vlad books where the books are about the same characters but are all independent stories and you can start pretty much anywhere, and in contrast Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths books and Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet where the individual books have their own story arcs but the later volumes really aren’t going to make as much sense if you haven’t read the earlier volumes.

what makes this book so great jo waltonSo, there’s style one, The Lord of the Rings, one book with extra pieces of cardboard.

There’s style two, Doctrine of Labyrinths, where you have volume closure but need to read the books in order.

There’s style three, Vlad and Vorkosigan, where the cumulative effect of reading all of them is to give you a story arc and more investment in the characters, but it doesn’t really matter where you start and whether you read them in order.

And there’s style four, Union-Alliance, where the volumes are completely independent of each other though they may reflect interestingly on each other.

I’ve been thinking about this because just as I’ve been thinking about the Vorkosigan books and the way they’re a series, Sarah Monette made a post in her LiveJournal in which she talks about the way her books have not had a series name or numbers attached to them, and how the reviews of the fourth book, Corambis (2009), seem to assume that it’s a bad thing that it’s part of a series and you need to have read the others for it to make sense. And she goes on to ask some interesting questions about the marketing decisions made with those books.

Personally, I like all four kinds of series, as you can tell by the way I can come up with examples of all of them off the top of my head and from my own bookshelves. What I can’t stand is when I pick up a random book in a bookshop or the library and it’s part of a series and that isn’t clearly indicated anywhere on it. I’ve picked up random volumes that are clearly part of a series in style one or style two, read a bit, been utterly confused, and never looked at the author again. I hate this. But Sarah says this is what marketing specifically required:

(M)y editor told me that we couldn’t put Book One of the Doctrine of Labyrinths on the cover or in the front matter. Marketing wouldn’t let us.

She explained their reasoning to me:

If a person buys a book and then discovers it is part of a series, they are more likely to buy the other books, whereas if a person picks up a book in a bookstore and sees it’s Book Two, they won’t buy it. (I think there’s a self-defeating flaw in this reasoning, since it assumes that Book One will not be near Book Two on the bookstore shelves, but that’s neither here nor there.) Never mind the fact that a person who buys a book only to discover it’s Book Two is likely to be an unhappy person, and never mind that, since the damn thing ISN’T LABELED as Book Two, the person has no immediately obvious and easy way of figuring out either which series it’s a part of, nor which books in the series come BEFORE it. . . . Marketing said, Thou Shalt Not Label The Books Of Thy Series, and lo, the books were not labeled.

Crazy for a style one or two series. But it’s going to work fine with a style three or four series.

Now, the Vorkosigan books (style three) are very good about this. They don’t say “Volume X of Y” on them, but they don’t need to. But they do have a timeline in the back that tells you precisely how to read them in internal chronological order. When I randomly picked up Brothers in Arms in the library many years ago, I could tell it was a series book and read it anyway.

I wonder if publishers and marketing people are sometimes mistaking a style one or two series for a style three or four series, or mistaking what works for a style three or four series as something that ought to work for all series. Or maybe they want every series to be a style three series—in which case, they should perhaps mention this to their authors. Certainly nobody has ever said this to me, and my first two published books were a style one, and it looks as if nobody has said it to Sarah either. And are style three series what readers want? I mean I like them, but as I already said, I like all these kinds of series.

How about you? What sort of series do you like, and how would you like it to be labelled?

Jo Walton won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2002, and the World Fantasy Award for her novel Tooth and Claw in 2004. Her several other novels include the acclaimed “Small Change” alternate-history trilogy, comprising Farthing, Ha’penny, and Half a Crown. Her novel Among Others won the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2012.

1. Mirkwood65
I like them all but I am most fond of style 3. I love when the story arc grows and continues as I get more and more invested in the characters.
I get to escape into a world I've become involved in and lose myself there.
2. HannahRose
I generally prefer style 2 because I like linear stories of developing characters. However, if it's an older series ("more distinguished"), I prefer style 3 so I can start with the newest book and make my way backwards if I enjoy it. I think books should be labelled if they are in a style 1 or 2 fashion. I once bought a book that looked interesting, and found out it was 5th out of 7 in a style 2 series. I was quite sad when I couldn't figure out the characters and such.
Another style I like is what R.A. Salvatore does with his books--trilogies that are read in a linear fashion within the trilogy, but can be read in any order as a set of trilogies. For example, you could read the Icewind Dale trilogy before the Legend of Drizzt trilogy, even though it comes chronologically after, and it would still make sense.
Lauren Hartman
3. naupathia
This is a tough question, but I would say I prefer type I, basically the types in descending order.

I absolutely love "books separated by extra pieces of cardboard" as you put it, because I feel it gives me the most time with the characters I've come to love. Stories like Game of Thrones, Stormlight Archives, and the Kingkiller Chronicles are top of my list.

However there is a caviat - I hate HATE reading them when all the books aren't out -- and you'll notice my list above every single series is in that category =( I really hate waiting for more books. So you might ask why read them? Well I fell in love with type I stories young, reading the Lord of the Rings, David Eddings, and a bunch of other fantasy pulled of my father's book shelf. Those were all complete sets and I devoured them. And these new books are just so good I couldn't wait to dig in until they were done. And I tend to be very hesitant to buy any books from author's I don't know or personally hear great things about, probably because every time I have in the past the book was awful. I apparently suck at judging books by their cover.

I've read a few that are in the other genre - and you might have missed a type 5 -- the kind that mixes some of the previous types. I've read Dennis L. McKiernan's novels and there are some that are "stand alone", there is at least one trilogy, and there are a couple that are maybe in type 3. But then the entire series is set in the same world with this expansive overarcing plot, touches on some of the same characters, so it's a bit of everything. I like his books a lot, more for his bardic writing style than anything.
4. Susan Macdonald
It sometimes seems like marketing people don't read books, doesn't it?
5. beattgirrl
I'm definately a style 2 girl. If there's a series I love, I never want it to end. I want to learn more details about my favorite characters with each new installment, and I want a cliff hanger at the end that will leave me salivating for more!
I personally get frustrated when books in series aren't clearly marked, but I also rarely go to the bookstore or library without my smart phone, which is laden with bookish apps that will help me solve any chronological mysteries.
Paul Weimer
6. PrinceJvstin
Hi Jo.

I find myself more liking types 1-3 the best, especially 2 and 3. The Daniel Abraham example for 2 is a telling one, the "arcs within a larger frame". The novels he does with Ty Franck fit into this pattern well.

And as far as 3--Bujold IS the trope definer for that form.

Type 4 series, I find, don't hold my interest so well. You'd think they would (more planets in the playground) but I find I need more interconnection than just a common universe in most cases.
Scott Silver
7. hihosilver28
One example of type 4 (well...and type 3) that I absolutely love is Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. Fantastic stuff and an absolute blast to read. Oooh, Tor should do a re-read of Discworld. Though, that's a hell of an undertaking.

I tend to like type 1 to 2 the best, with the best examples for me being Wheel of Time, all of Sanderson's work, and Harry Potter, but I'm game for anything.
8. ShellyS
I like all 4 types of series, and no, I won't buy a book 2 in a series if I can't find book 1. I like to read in order. I stopped reading the Miles Vorkosigan books because Bujold wasn't writing them in chronological order, and even though the books could stand alone, I didn't want to read them out of chronological order, so I kept buying them and waiting for the books in-between, and finally, I gave up.

I loved the Doctrine of Labyrinths series, but since I had bought book one and hadn't known it was a series, I ran into trouble finding the rest of the books. I had book one for years before I got around to reading it, then discovered there were more. Book 4 was in B&N, but the second and third were out of stock or out of print and I had to get used copies, one from B& and one from and both cost at least twice what they were originally priced, which was annoying. If I'd known the first was part of a series, I would have kept checking for the next ones as they were published.

That said, if I see a book 16 in a series and it looks interesting, I won't buy it because I don't want to have to hunt down the first 15. And I tend to get bored by very long series. IMO, most go on a bit longer than they should. Though I wish Sarah Monette would do another Labyrinth book.

I'm currently reading the third book of A Song of Ice and Fire, trying to get ahead of the TV show, and loving it.
Derek Broughton
9. auspex
@PrinceJvstin "Type 4 series, I find, don't hold my interest so well."

That, imo, is because they're not "series". Cherryh has numerous books set in the Union-Alliance universe that are, in no way, part of a Union-Alliance series, so where would you draw the line? If there are no shared characters, it's not a series (there are numerous series within the Union-Alliance universe).

So, discounting type 4, I generally prefer types 2 or 3, but if I really need to read them in order, damn marketing: because I would likely never read another book by an author if I was conned into buying the second volume of a series when I didn't know it was a sequel to a book I hadn't read. Thanks to the Internet, that's not likely to happen again, but it's a really stupid marketing decision not to label the books.
Jeff Youngstrom
10. jeffy
It took me ages to get around to reading Bujold's Chalion series because I would only ever see one of the books at a time and I could never tell whether it was the first one or not without having the others there to compare pub dates.

This is one of the things that frustrates me at too. While they have kluged in series metadata as part of their title attributes, that doesn't allow examining series as a whole in any useful way.

And these things are problems for me because I basically treat types 2, 3, and 4 as type 2. With the caveat that I'm a publication order purist, so for example, Brust's discontinuities just get read as flashbacks (or forwards, I guess).
Pamela Adams
11. PamAdams
I'm a style 3 by choice- I love continuing characters, but want them to have enough time to live their lives outside of the books. I eventually gave up on Sookie and Friends/Enemies, because each book seemed to rehash the last. She barely had time to heal between books, let alone have a life. I do enjoy a style 2 if it's short- 3-5 books max. Style 1- I want them to be complete before I read- the wait for Day 3 is killing me!
Birgit F
12. birgit
If a publisher tries to trick me into buying book 10 in a series by not telling me that it is book 10 and I first have to read the other 9 for it to make sense I won't buy the books at all. If a book is part of a series it should be clearly labeled as book n in series x and there should be a list of all the previous books in the series in the front of the book. If I fist have to search for the author's homepage to figure out what I should read in which order I'll rather read something else.
Susan Hill
13. arethusarose
I like series 1 and 2, and series 4 from authors I like. I generally don't like series 3, and avoid them most of the time. In my view they go on and on and on long after there is anything new said, If marketing can't handle series notation on the cover they should at least insist it appear inside the book so the reader can look for other volumes in the series. Without a list I'm likely to miss other books in the series or by the author. Publishers need to help their customers, not conceal information.

Sarah Monette has every reason to complain about the handling of Doctrine of Labyrinths. I found it when volume 2 was in bookstores; vol. 1 was already gone from the shelves both places I checked. I had to order it from Amazon; fortunatly I was early enough to get the books I needed. People who found the series later, from blog postings or recommendations, had a hard time getting the earlier books in any format. That series had a long-developing group of readers; the publisher would probably have sold more of the books if they'd kept them available and word got around about the series.
14. Plarry
I prefer styles 3 and 4. However, for me, it has less to do with the nature of the storytelling but more with the nature of marketing and timing. I won't read style 1 unless all the books are out. This perhaps stems from a poor reception to the lack of followup to Steven Boyett's _The Architect of Sleep_ many years ago. I'm ok with style 2 but prefer all the books in the series to be out before I read them.

I agree with Arethusarose - it is very annoying to see "volume 2 of the XXX cycle" on the shelf when volume 1 is not there. And the marketer's tricks of simply not labeling the books has only made me a more careful book-buyer - I look on wikipedia, goodreads, and the author's website (smartphones, yay!) to find out what the author has written before I buy.
Which just means I don't indiscriminately buy as much as I did in the prior decades. That's a loss for the industry. On the other hand, there's a lot of great stuff out there, and so I don't feel I'm missing out by waiting (a possibly very long time) for the completion of some of the style 1 and 2 sets of books.
Lish McBride
15. Lishism
I love pretty much any kind of series as long as it works, actually. I'm okay with books you have to read in order, or ones that stand alone, as long as they're great stories and so on and so forth. However, I like them all labeled in someway so that I can easily see where to begin because I hate reading things out of order. If I see a book on a shelf and the series looks good, but they only have book two, then I order book one! It's simple. Since I also work in a bookstore and have to help frustrated customers when they can't figure out which order they go in (But my son said he needed the THIRD book--are you sure this is the third book?!?) I can say that I hate in when books don't have the series order listed somewhere.
Beth Mitcham
16. bethmitcham
If a series is running long (4 or more books), I actually prefer to start in the middle. I want the author & writing to be good enough to hook me from the middle before I commit to thousands of pages. Then if I like the books, I can do a variety of rereads to get the full effect. This works great for types 2, 3, and 4, although type 1 doesn't usually get that long.

This suits me well because I also expect a writer to get better. Good writers like Bujold or Brust or Monette are also saying different things with each book, so it doesn't get repetitive.
Scott Raun
17. sraun
I like them all, though I think 2 and 3 may be slightly preferred.

Just to be ... annoying? How would you classify Sharon Lee & Steve Miller's Liaden Universe works? There's definitely a timeline, there are sub-sets that are type 1 (Fledgling/Saltation, the Crystal Duology), type 2 (Carpe Diem through I Dare), type 3 (Local Custom, Scout's Progress, Mouse and Dragon), and the canon as a whole is type 4 (especially when you start looking at the short stories).
Andrew Mason
18. AnotherAndrew
a. It's good to see this post agian: I was looking for it recently, because it (specifically the difference between type 1 and the others) is relevant to recent Hugo discussions.

b. One question which seems to me quite important is whether a series is moving towards an end or not. This, I think, doesn't quite correlate with any of the distinctions here - it would seem to cut through type 3, since Brust is working towards a definite conclusion, to be reached in 19 books, wheras Bujold, if I understand rightly, isn't: her story is open-ended. I went a little while ago to an event with Ben Aaronovitch and Paul Cornell, both of whom are writing supernatural detective series, and they were asked about this. Aaronovitch said he had no planned end for his series, but would continue until he could afford a yacht. Cornell, on the other hand, said that he originally planned his series as open-ended, but in the course of planning it had come to realise that there was an arc, which would reach a natural conclusion in book 5.

c. One thing which complicates matters is that a series of one kind can be nested within a series of another kind. Brust, again, is an example of this, with the Vlad series (type 3) forming part of the Dragaera series (type 4), along with the Paarfi books and Brokedown Palace. Or again, Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun (type 1) is part of the solar cycle (type - 3.5? Placing things on this scale can be tricky.)
EJ Pryor
19. buckmoth
I tend to avoid type 1 and some type 2 series just because I have a terrible memory. If I don't read the volumes back-to-back, I'll have no idea at all of who the characters are or what happened to them earlier. Reading them back-to-back solves that problem, but leaves me with the problem of getting terribly bored if the series goes on for more than a few books. I can deal with type 1 if they're of manageable length and I can pretend they're just one long but still reasonably feasible book, but I've never made it past volume three of any of the big doorstopper series.
Anthony Pero
20. anthonypero
I love type 1 stories when they are finished. And The Wheel of Time did just fine with the label Book # of the Wheel of Time on the cover. Although in a later years I think the hardcovers converted to simply A Wheel of Time Novel.

I also really love whatever type the Dresden Files fall into. You really should read them in order, but each story is self contained.
21. ulrika
I'm pretty agnostic on types of series -- I like any and all, really -- but I do find it deeply annoying to discover that I've picked up a volume somewhere in the middle of a Type 1 or Type 2 category series and had no warning of the fact on the cover. I was traumatized as a child by being encouraged by a teacher to go ahead and start reading The Lord of the Rings at The Return of the King, as that was the only volume the classroom library had in at the time that I needed to start on my next book report book. This turns out to be not such a good idea. Since then I've been kind of unhappy about starting strongly sequential series out of order. (And yes, I did eventually read The Lord of the Rings the right way round, but it may be a reflection of my early scarring that, unlike most people I know who've read it, I have only read it once.)

I'll also sympathize with those who prefer a series to be finished before they start it -- I started in on Roger Zelazny's Amber books when the only ones out were Nine Princes in Amber and The Guns of Avalon. I figured this would be no big deal, anticipating that it would be a trilogy. Oops. I still have a hardback copy of The Courts of Chaos because by the time it finally came out I could no longer hold out the extra year to wait for a paperback release. That was the first hardcover book I ever bought with my own money, and I had to take an unfamiliar bus downtown to a specialty bookstore to get it, because my local general bookstore only carried SF in paperback.
Andrew Mason
22. AnotherAndrew
It strikes me that series of types 1 and 2 seem to be distinctive of fantasy. I can't think of many examples in mainstream fiction, or in crime (which is, of course, very much the home of type 3 and 4 series), and while I don't know enough about romance, I would think that the very nature of a romance plot would make it hard to create that kind of series there. But even in the SFF field they are rarely found in science fiction.

This raises two questions: first, why does fantasy attract that kind of writing? And second, can it be that there is a reason why some people (like Ulrika's teacher, and apparently some people in publishing) haven't grasped the point that series need to be read in order: that the kind of series of which that's true is rather unusual outside a restricted field?
Jo Walton
23. bluejo
AnotherAndrew: I think the question of an ending is crucial -- tyoe 1 will have an end, type 2 is heading towards an end, type 3 may or may not be, and type 4 definitely isn't. The question of an end is also crucial to whether the writer is still in control of the material or if it's getting away from them -- I mentioned in my review of A Dance With Dragons that it had given me faith that there would be an end and we were making progress towards it.
24. Bookworm1398
I like all the kinds, but prefer type 3 or 4. My main problem with type 1s is having to locate all the books in the series, since I try to read the whole series within a few weeks. For type 3 or 4, I can wait several months between the books, so it is easier to find them.
As far as marketing goes, I don't buy books without first checking the reviews so I would know that it was a series.
25. paintedjaguar
The one unforgiveable publishing sin is to put out the first part of a type 1 (one long book) and then never publish the rest. I'm thinking of two SF books in particular, Far Edge of Darkness by Linda Evans (1996) and The Architect of Sleep by Steven R. Boyett (1986). Although they are both excellent reads, each stops without warning at a cliffhanger and the rest of the story remains unwritten to this day and will likely never be completed. In neither case was there any warning that you were buying only part of a book.

C. S. Forester's Hornblower books are an interesting example of a long-running series. Although the first book published stands on its own pretty well, Beat to Quarters does leave some matters unresolved and along with its two sequels, Ship of the Line and Flying Colours, is really a type 1 all-one-book trilogy. The trilogy is in the middle of the series chronologically and the other seven books were not written in chronological order, so you can really start anywhere but in the middle of the trilogy. (And if you've never read them, you should start right now.)
Clifton Royston
26. CliftonR
Having finally found and read the first three books of Sarah Monette's series recently - and thank you so much, Jo, for recommending them - it appeared to me that the first two books Melusine and Virtu each were half a story, but made a fairly complete arc together, and the third book, The Mirador, was very clearly half a story, which I assume will complete the arc when I find Corambis. So I think I'd call the Doctrine of Labyrinths series somewhere between style 1 and style 2, depending on which group of books you're talking about, or perhaps a pair of style 1 series which together make up a style 2.

I also find it disheartening to hear that they've become expensive posthumously, so to speak. I found the first three in the state library system but they don't have Corambis, so I'll have to buy that and choose between paying too much for the first three or getting along with just the last of the series.
Jeanette Baker
27. FollowYourMuse
I read all 4 kinds, but like 2 and 1 best, as for Marketing, not identifying series some books do and some do not, but I agree it is very annoying to pick up a book and not realize that it is book 2 or 10.
I have even found myself not reading a book, or not buying it thinking this does not make sense.
I think that today it is very common that book stores do not carry all the books in a series, very often they only carry the most current book, The same applies to fiction in Libraries.
28. davidbreslin101
I like plenty of examples of 2,3 and 4, and will happily start a series somewhere in the middle if that's what came to hand. (I did that with "The Two Towers", would you believe.) Despite "The Lord of the Rings" being one of my favourite books, I've picked up an aversion to type 1s (and to type 2s with inadequate volume endings). Possibly due to a bad experience reading "The Wheel of Time": towards the middle, volumes just seemed to ramble shapelessly on forever with no plot threads ever resolved, so I gave up. Only to discover that this approach was becoming rather common in fantasy.... since then, I prefer every volume in a series to be a proper novel with a plot that starts and ends, even if it makes little sense outside of the context of the whole series.

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